Skillful Charitable Giving Begins With a Plan

There's an easy and relatively painless way to avoid the year-end crush and make more effective gifts: Create a plan now and fulfill it throughout the year. Here's how.

1. Start by making a list of the things you care about and want to benefit in the coming year. The things you focus on change as your life does, so decide which past causes to keep and which new ones to add.

2. Create a list of the nonprofits you want to support. Some of these may be organizations you have benefited for a long time. Consider adding a few new nonprofits to your list, either because you've found them recently or want to know more about them.

3. Then consider your charitable budget for the year. As you gather your paperwork together to file taxes, take a frank look at your financial resources and how much you donated in 2014. Are you living out your values, fulfilling a religious belief, or giving back? You might be able to be more generous in 2015, if you're creative with your finances.

4. Decide how and when you want to give during the year. This decision depends on your own cash flow and the form your gifts will take. Write out your plan in a simple format and get going.

5. Better yet, set up a series of gifts during the year using automatic withdrawals. Doing so will ensure that next December, you can take at least one thing off of your year-end to-do list: catching up on your charitable giving.

Then follow up with your plan during the year by engaging with the nonprofits you care about. Read their materials, meet staff or board members, or spend some time volunteering. You're giving to make a difference, yet you can't know whether you made a difference without following up.

This is a simple level of planning. If you have a large or complex set of financial resources, or want to make unusual gifts, you would benefit from having a professional help you with your planning. These services are usually scalable to your situation and may include multi-year planning.